Robert Hill, center, stands with his lawyers Harold Ferguson and Sharon Katz as Justice Neil Firetog vacates his murder conviction Tuesday. He is one of three half-brothers whose decades-old convictions were vacated. Hill was the only one still incarcerated. One brother was on parole and the third had died in prison. (AP/Bebeto Matthews)
Editors’ Note: This article has been updated to reflect a Correction.
Three half-brothers had their decades-old murder convictions vacated yesterday at the request of Brooklyn prosecutors, marking the first vacaturs since District Attorney Kenneth Thompson took over a closely-watched review of cases linked to a retired detective.
The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office Conviction Review Unit is examining more than 50 convictions in cases that involved ex-detective Louis Scarcella. The convictions vacated yesterday are the results of that review.
Though never mentioning Scarcella during the proceedings, Assistant District Attorney Mark Hale said the cases against Darryl Austin, Alveana Jenette and Robert Hill—arising from separate 1985 and 1987 shootings—were plagued by testimony from the same “extremely problematic” and “incredible” drug-addicted prosecution witness, Teresa Gomez, now deceased.
The prosecution’s use of Gomez at that time was “probably improvident and impaired the integrity” of the fact-finding process for the juries, Hale said.
Moreover, in the case against Jenette and Austin, Hale said a review by the conviction review unit showed that certain police notes “indicated an alternative shooter” had committed the crime, but those notes were not turned over to the prosecution or defense.
Acting Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Neil Firetog (See Profile) granted the prosecution’s requests to dismiss the indictments and convictions, which were joined by the defense.
Onlookers in the court applauded.
Hill was released from custody yesterday. He was serving an 18-year-to-life sentence for a shooting and was already scheduled to be paroled later this month.
Jenette and Austin were convicted in connection with the robbery and fatal shooting of a man. Jenette, who was in court Tuesday, made parole in 2007. Austin died in prison after serving 14 years, but his mother, Louise, appeared in court on his behalf Tuesday. Both had been sentenced to 18-years-to-life terms.
“Based on a comprehensive review of these cases, it is clear that testimony from the same problematic witness undermined the integrity of these convictions, and resulted in an unfair trial for each of these defendants,” Thompson said in a statement. “We therefore have moved to vacate these convictions and dismiss the charges in the interest of justice.”
The conviction review unit is reportedly examining roughly two dozen non-Scarcella related cases. A few such cases have been vacated since Thompson took office in January.
Scarcella’s police work came under scrutiny in the wake of the 2013 release of defendant David Ranta, who spent 23 years in prison for the murder of a rabbi despite maintaining his innocence (NYLJ, March 21, 2013).
Scarcella has denied any wrongdoing.
In a statement yesterday, his attorneys, Alan Abramson of Abramson & Morak and Joel S. Cohen of Manhattan, said their client “was a proud member of a large team that investigated each of these cases. As in all homicide cases, each of his arrests were authorized by a senior prosecutor in the district attorney’s office homicide bureau.”
All the evidence in Scarcella’s cases had been “thoroughly vetted and continuously reviewed by” prosecutors, the statement noted. “The vacating of a conviction is always appropriate when upon detailed review, questions arise that were not evident at the time of the trial. The district attorney’s office made it clear that the actions taken today were not exonerations, and did not declare these men innocent of the charges.”
Hill was represented by Harold Ferguson and David Crow of the Legal Aid Society and Sharon Katz, special counsel for pro bono for Davis Polk & Wardwell. Pierre Sussman of the Bronx represented Austin and Jeanette in the criminal proceedings.
Craig Cagney and Joshua Dugan, associates at Davis Polk, also assisted in Hill’s representation.
After proceedings that took about 20 minutes, the brothers and their mother fought their way through a scrum of media covering the event to reach an elevator to leave the courthouse. In response to shouted questions, Hill said he was “feeling all right.”
Ferguson said a “wonderful thing” had happened in court, adding that through the years, Hill “never gave up hope.”
Crow, who had previously handled Hill’s direct appeal, said he raised the same concerns about the case that ultimately led to the vacatur. Crow said he “always felt the conviction was a troubled one.”
Assistant District Attorney Jessica Wilson also appeared for the prosecution.
In early April, the district attorney’s office announced it was bringing on Harvard Law professor Ronald Sullivan Jr. as chief of the conviction review unit.
According to a press release from the office, the charges were dismissed after a “thorough investigation” from the conviction review unit led by Sullivan and a “complete vetting” by the office’s independent review panel, consisting of Bernard Nussbaum, of counsel at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, Jennifer Rodgers, executive director of the Columbia University School of Law’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity and defense attorney Gary Villanueva.